Blackout sparks tiff over TTC’s use of Twitter

TTC communications director Brad Ross didn’t realize how useful Twitter could be until the January blackout that shut down subway lines.

He’d been using Twitter, the instant messaging service that limits your posts (called tweets) to 140 characters, for a few months. He was testing it, trying to figure out if it could be useful in his work.

Ross said his answer came Jan. 16 in a burst: a water main froze and broke inside a downtown power substation turning off power in much of downtown Toronto and bringing the subway to a halt.

“That’s when it all clicked for me,” he said. “People were looking for answers about how to get around the city and I was able to help a lot of the people who were using Twitter. Talking with TTC users in real time offers a connectedness between riders and the TTC that was never possible before.”

Less than a week later, Ross was once again helping his followers after a shooting in the Osgoode subway station interrupted subway service.

“Repeat: If going north, use Yonge line to Bloor, go west to St. George, Spadina line north is open. Streetcars not affected downtown,” he tweeted.

But an article appeared later that night on NOW Magazine’s website chastizing Ross and TTC chairman Adam Giambrone for being on Twitter during the emergency. Author Joshua Errett was critical of their spending time on a service when, at the time, they had about 500 followers between them.

“Together, their Twitter updates reach a tiny fraction of TTC riders,” wrote Errett. “In fact, I bet if Giambrone wrote TTC updates on Post-It notes and stuck them to the door of my apartment, they would reach more TTC users than his Twitter account.”

Ross said that criticism is unfair.

“Twitter is just one of many communications strategies that the TTC is using,” he said. “We also use our website, our e-alerts service, and we give updates directly to news outlets so they can keep their listeners informed.”

He also pointed out that Twitter has a ripple effect. People following Ross on Twitter can pass his messages on to their Twitter followers in a process called ‘retweeting’, or text them to friends, increasing his reach by many times.

Since then he has provided answers on Twitter for more incidents, including a shooting on a bus and other service interruptions. His Twitter followers get updates much faster than they could have through mainstream news outlets such as radio and TV. Ross now has over 1,200 followers on Twitter.

Brad Ross is far from the only public figure in Toronto using Twitter. TTC chair Giambrone and other city councillors, including Denzil Minnan-Wong and Joe Mihevc, use Twitter.

So does Mayor David Miller. An avid Twitter user, he gives followers updates on where he’s speaking and candid thoughts on various issues affecting the city. Even insights on how he’s feeling, as in this tweet:

“Jill and I are having dinner together tonight. I just walked into the restaurant and a man stood, shook my hand, and said ‘Thank you.’ Nice.”

These are people journalists call to talk to when they’re writing their stories. A question arises: what need does society have for journalists if the sources they use in their stories can go direct to the people, in real time?

Brad Ross said he hopes nothing ever happens to the mainstream media.

“Journalism performs an incredibly valuable service to society,” he said. “Part of my job is to help news organizations as much as possible, by getting accurate updates to them as quickly as possible so they can inform their audience.”

Globe and Mail journalist, blogger, and avid Twitter user Mathew Ingram thinks society needs journalism more than ever before.

“Today there is even more need for the functions of journalism, to filter out all the crap,” he said. “You still need someone to arbitrate things, to check facts. Journalists have always been filters: taking huge amounts of information, sorting it out, organizing it, fact-checking it, and then putting it all in context.”

And there’s no shortage of journalists to listen for, interpret and fact-check the tweets of Toronto’s public figures.

Dozens of Toronto reporters spend time every day on Twitter, developing relationships with their readers, reporting the news, and gathering information. Many of those are from the Globe and Mail, where Ingram evangelizesabout the use of Twitter and other social media tools as the Globe’s communities editor.

“We’re going to be trying more of everything,” he said. “I don’t care if the tool has a stupid name. I don’t care if they leave Twitter and go to something with an even stupider name. I’m going to follow them there and try that as well.”